I’ve decided I need to be a better person. If heaven is anything like last weekend’s Wings, Waves & Woods Festival in Deer Isle and Stonington, I would like to spend eternity there. I’ve pitched in with the festival since its inception. But in all the years I’ve guided in the area, I’ve never had such consistently incredible weather as this year’s event. I’ve done the festival in rain and sun. Sun is better.
This year’s birding festival broke new ground. Besides the usual morning walks, I was privileged to lead the first-ever birding stroll on Isle au Haut. Saturday’s faultless weather made it easy to spot the black guillemots from the mail boat on our ride to the island. This pigeon-sized seabird is the only member of the puffin family to nest along the mainland and it is generally easy to see from shore. In summer, they are all black, save for white wing patches and bright red feet. Our boat also skirted past a few surf and black scoters. These sea ducks breed farther north, but they are in no hurry to get there and they usually make the list of birds seen during the festival in mid May.
The walk on Isle au Haut was infested with black-throated green and magnolia warblers and we were forced to endure many excellent, close views. The highlight was a family of white-winged crossbills. Crossbills can nest in any season, whenever there is sufficient food; they are not limited to summer. As we watched, the streaky brown youngsters stayed close to dad while feeding atop the spruce. Sadly, this probably means we won’t get to observe crossbill fornication this summer. These finches are the champions of exhibitionism. Typically, the female sits at the top of a bare tree for the entire world to see and invites copulation. The male naturally obliges the little hussy.
Sunday was also a new experience, as the festival tried out a birding-by-kayak adventure. We departed the dock at Old Quarry Adventures at 9 a.m. onto a flat calm sea. Conditions were so extraordinary that we hugged the shoreline and called out the birds we were hearing just for fun. How often do you add eight warblers, two finches, and one crossbill species to an ocean trip list?
However, my real quest was for purple sandpipers. These plump shorebirds breed in the high arctic. Since it remains frozen up there for a long time, they don’t leave their winter grounds in Maine until about Memorial Day. I’ve always scored a few during the festival and I was irked that I couldn’t spot any from the mail boat this year. OK, now it’s personal.
So I increased my vigilance throughout the paddle. A couple of flocks of black-bellied plovers roosting on ledges gave us hope. Finally, as we rounded the far side of an island known as Hell’s Half Acre, I spotted the telltale bumps on a rock a thousand yards away. Bingo. About 20 purple sandpipers let us paddle right up to the ledge. Like most arctic breeders, they are not wary of people. About this time, an increasing number of harbor seals popped their heads out of the water around us, letting their curiosity overcome their natural distrust of kayaks. Seals have little dread of lobster boats, but perhaps kayaks look too much like killer whales.
Ultimately, the best parts of the festival may have been the parts I didn’t go on. Two festival boat trips to Seal Island enjoyed the same great weather and calm sea. Loads of Atlantic puffins, razorbills, guillemots and great cormorants were waiting for them when they got there. Numerous common and arctic terns patrolled the skies overhead. Annually, this trip is the first puffin tour in Maine and it seldom disappoints.
No, wait. The best part of the festival was sitting with friends on the deck of Inn On The Harbor in Stonington on Saturday afternoon, first enjoying innkeeper Christina Shipp’s good coffee, later devouring local pizza. The inn is so peaceful, scenic and luxurious that I even go there during a snowstorm in winter just to snuggle in.
And that is the secret to the festival’s success. It is a community event timed to coincide with the exact moment the birds are returning. Throw in a little local art, ambience and Nervous Nellie’s Jams & Jellies, and watch the popularity grow. I had birders from Michigan and Missouri on my walks this year. The word is spreading.
Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He can be reached at email@example.com.